The Annals of the Joseon Dynasty are the annual records of the Joseon Dynasty of Korea, an extensive collection of records on national affairs and the activities of the state. However in the year 1616, during the reign of King Gwanghae, there is a missing record of 15 days. This is where Masquerade comes in.
King Gwanghae fears for his life. Faced with real and imagined threats, the King becomes paranoid enough that he asked the Chief Secretary to find a body double, someone to reside in his chambers in the evenings, while he hides somewhere else—mostly in one of his concubines’ beds. A doppelganger is shortly found in the form of Ha Seon, a jester earning his living by comically imitating and mocking the King in pleasure houses. At first, Ha Seon only needs to calmly sit and rest in place of the King after dark, but then the worst fear comes true, the King is poisoned. All of a sudden Ha Seon is required not only behind the doors but also out in the open before all the ministers and scholars, leading meetings every morning, addressing new policies and responding to the ministers’ comments and suggestions, until the real King recovers. Inevitably he begins to learn about how the politic games are played among the people in power with the innocent people’s welfare easily overlooked.
So it’s basically The Prince and the Pauper, set in the Joseon era. But this is exactly the thing that I love about the Korean cinema—they can take a simple, recycled idea for a story, and make one hell of a movie out of it. Masquerade is one perfect example of that. The story is not exactly original, but the final product is incredibly well-made and well-balanced.
The budget of 9.5 billion won did not go to waste in Choo Chang Min’s Masquerade. With a detailed production design, the film is a gorgeous piece of work to look at. When the movie starts with a scene of King Gwanghae being readied for the day, his headdress pinned, his nails cleaned, his beard trimmed, with sunshine passing through the rice paper window, we know that the visuals are not going to be disappointing. The costumes and sets succeed in making the Korean dynasty look lavish and grand, even the set of bronzeware used to serve the various, colorful food is eye-catching. The rich red color of the King’s robe with gold embroidery always stands out, particularly in the memorable scene when the King and Ha Seon first meet. It makes me lament about The King and the Clown, how it should have looked more like this.
At first glance Masquerade can look like a heavy watch, but it turns out to be an all-round pleasing entertainment for all. There are more comical scenes than one expects, resulting from Ha Seon’s adjustments with his new lifestyle and his naivety. Writer Hwang Jo Yoon (who wrote Oldboy) paced the movie smartly, balancing the serious and light-hearted scenes well, drawing tears and laughs from the audience at the right moments. The center of its balance is none other than leading man Lee Byung Hun, playing the dual role to perfection, shifting between the stoic, intense King and the good-natured jester. Seeing Ha Seon evolve from a money-oriented simpleton to a man wishing he was King is wonderful, a display of Lee Byung Hun’s undeniable quality. It reminds me of an interview I saw on TV a while ago, where a veteran Korean actor (whose name escaped me) was asked about his opinion on how Korean actors were beginning to work in Hollywood productions, and they picked Lee as an example. “What is he doing with those Hollywood movies?” the actor responded honestly. “Isn’t it better if he continues to do quality Korean films and help introduce and promote Korean cinema to the international world?” And I have to say I agree. I understand the desire of an actor to go to Hollywood, do Hollywood movies, taste Hollywood fame. But I really wish fewer actors are obsessed with that, especially one with quality, like Lee. Rather than playing a shirtless Asian dude called Snake Eyes, isn’t it far better to do a real, challenging role such as Gwanghae?
Ryu Seung Ryong plays the Chief Secretary and he always gives a solid performance, whether it’s a cold-blooded Manchurian warrior or a mentally challenged man. The only two characters that know about Ha Seon’s identity in the palace are the Chief Secretary and Chief Eunuch (played by Jang Gwang) and the relationship of the three characters provide the best moments of the movie. The beautiful Han Hyo Joo (that complexion is unreal) has a supporting role as the Queen, and even with limited screen time and characterization she is still quite memorable.
If you’re looking for a ‘historically correct’ take on the missing 15-day record, you’re likely to be disappointed. Masquerade is a fiction, and I doubt anyone actually thinks that this is what really happened during those 15 days. You’re not going to find an overly complicated, manic King as a lead character. Masquerade is a pleasant, entertaining, perfectly well-made movie. It impresses not only with grandiose (especially the wonderful cinematography), but also with heart.
Masquerade was screened at the 2013 Korean Film Festival.